25th Sunday 2012 B
Is it bad to be ambitious?
Jesus’ disciples wanted to succeed. Well, don’t we all? I don’t like to lose at Soduko, or Bridge, and much less at the great game of life. There are established measures for success in every path we care to stroll. In school you aim for the “A.” In sports you want to score the point. In elections you want more votes than the other candidate. At work you look for a raise. When you enter the contest you covet the trophy.
I know women claim otherwise. False humility says it doesn’t matter if you succeed or not, yet I want this week’s homily to resonate with you and generate enthusiasm. If I were indifferent to the results of our efforts, I might not be too motivated to make the first step. But we’re also not naive enough to mistake superficial approval as the real measure of a job well done. Even when the assembly gives a standing ovation, that might only mean that they like what they heard or how it was said. It doesn’t mean that truth or the gospel has been proclaimed.
What it comes down to is that the sin of the disciples in today’s gospel is not ambition. It’s not wrong for them to want some way to measure progress. Who wouldn’t want to be the best apostle?
Theophyact, an ancient writer, puts it this way: “Jesus questioned the disciples: 'What were you arguing about on the way?' Now the disciples still saw things from a very human point of view, and they had been quarrelling amongst themselves about which of them was the greatest. Yet the Lord did not restrain their desire for preeminent honor; indeed he wishes us to aspire to the most exalted rank. He does not however wish us to seize the first place, but rather to win the highest honor by humility.” Unquote
Perhaps a story by Andrew Greeley can put this in perspective: “Once upon a time a CEO of a large and important corporation promoted two of his brightest young executives for rapid promotion because they were so creative and so intelligent and so hard working. Everyone knew, including the executives whom he had passed over, that one or the other of these men would be the next CEO. One would be named president of the company and the other the Vice CEO. They had been close friends for twenty years and their combined talents and dedication had been responsible for the rapid growth of the firm. However, once it became clear to both of them that only one could win the prize, they began to try to undercut one another.
Their friendship ended. Their wives stopped speaking to one another (though they had been friends too). The other executives enjoyed the rivalry and plotted how they could undercut both of them. Now the big problem was that the two stopped cooperating with one another and that cooperation had been the key to firm’s success. Sales fell off, a little bit and then a lot. Wall Street, as you can imagine, didn’t like that at all.
Two months before the CEO was to retire, the board of directors intervened and fired him. Then they brought in a new CEO from another company. Everyone said that if the two crown princes had only cooperated a little more, they both would have won. Two children, an analyst said, could have run that company, it was so successful, but these adults couldn’t. (Andrew Greeley)
Jesus, who once told a story extolling the virtues of an unjust steward, views ambition for the Kingdom as a good thing. To be first in the Kingdom is worth striving for. But please understand: To be first, you have to get to the back of the line. Put the last first, Jesus says. That’s an ambition worthy of discipleship.
It’s especially ironic that the last teaching Jesus gives along the way that day is the second prediction of the Passion. He’s talking crucifixion while his friends are measuring themselves for robes of honor.
THE PHILOSOPHER Søren Kierkegaard once said that what Jesus wants is followers, not admirers. He’s right. To admire Jesus without trying to change our lives does nothing for Jesus or for us. Yet how exactly does one follow Jesus? Classically we have said that we do this by trying to imitate him. But what is that?
Perhaps one of the better answers to that question is given by Saint Johnof the Cross, the great Spanish mystic. In his view, we imitate Jesus when we try to imitate his motivation, when we try to do things for the same reason he did. For him, that is how one “puts on Christ.” We enter real discipleship when, like Jesus, we have as our motivation the desire to draw all things into one—into one unity of heart, one family of love.
So it is not enough to have ambition and succeed. In doing so we must have the motivation to foster unity not competition. This is the feminine critique that is leveled very often at us men.
The first reading reveals the way in which scheming minds work. Look at the “Just One,” they say. He thinks he is so wonderful. He accuses us of breaking the law. Well, let’s take his high opinion of himself and test it. We are just conducting an ‘interesting experiment’. He thinks he is so holy. Let us see how revilement and torture will affect him. Let us see what a slow death will do to someone supposedly so patient and gentle. This view of human evil is breathtaking.
The second reading of Mass from the Letter of James describes an unredeemed situation of the time when James wrote his letter and of our own time: "Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder...you covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war." Know them by their fruits. If a work produces jealousy, selfish ambition, conflicts and close-mindedness, how good is the tree? What about mercy, compliance, constancy, sincerity, and peace? Which kind of tree are you? Selfish ambition!
This is a difficult challenge in many of our schools and workplaces. So often these are battlegrounds where people look to advance themselves by tearing others down. We Christians are challenged to avoid self-promotion that so often is the reason for calling attention to the failings of others. We Catholics are challenged to avoid returning insult and pettiness when we have been hurt by others. We are challenged to avoid using others for our own selfish gain.
The creative service of love unites God and every human being in the most intimate communion of life. Jesus says, "Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me."
If anyone wishes to be first, let him make himself last of all and the servant of all.”